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Sound and independent information
on the environment


Nature protection and biodiversity (Spain)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Biodiversity loss affects all the world's biogeographical regions. This process is affecting all of the planet's terrestrial and marine ecosystems and, as a consequence, the natural resources on which the existence of human beings depends are in danger.

Spain has a substantial natural heritage and has EU's highest number of taxa (almost 80 000). It also has a high number of endemisms, especially in the Canary Islands. Likewise, it has one of EU's largest percentages of protected area (27.7 % of national territory), including both Protected Areas created under Spanish legislation and those included in the Natura 2000 network.

Spain's extensive coastline (over 10 000 km) hosts substantial marine and coastal environment. The coastal strip is also home to the majority of the country's population (44 % of inhabitants live in coastal municipalities that represent barely 7 % of national territory). Furthermore, the coastal strip is also used for a significant volume of economic activity (in 2009, 87 % of Spain's 45,4 million of foreign tourists spend their holidays on the coast). In addition, the country's extensive agricultural and forest areas (24.8 million ha of utilised agricultural area and 27.6 million ha of forest) contain a large number of agricultural, forest and transitional ecosystems that have emerged as a result of human activity within the natural environment.


The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Spain has two clearly defined types of protected natural area: Protected Areas –PA (designated under Law 42/2007, on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity) and protection granted by inclusion in the Natura 2000 network. Spain's protected natural areas also include those covered by international instruments, such as Wetlands of International Importance (designated under the Ramsar Convention) and Biosphere Reserves. In 2009, the country had 1 519 Protected Areas (PAs) covering a total of 6 174 788 ha (terrestrial and marine). As a result, in 2009, protected areas accounted for 11.7 % of Spain's total land area.

Protected areas 2009

Moreover, 27.6 % of Spain's land area was protected either as a designated PA or by inclusion in the Natura 2000 network. It should be noted that a significant part of the land area designated as PAs also forms part of the Natura 2000 network and that, consequently, adding the two totals together does not produce the total area protected by both.

Protected area map

In 2009, Spain had 1 435 SCIs covering a total area of 12 623 056 ha (11 606 347 terrestrial ha and 1 016 708 marine ha). These accounted for 24.94 % of the country's total land area. Also 594 SPAs covered an area of 10 334 304 ha (10 063 831 terrestrial and 270 473 marine ha). These accounted for 20.92 % of the country's land area.

Among Spain's protected areas, its National Parks (NPs) are particularly important and conservation of these natural areas of high ecological and cultural value has been declared an issue of national interest. Spain currently has 14 NPs and also perform significant educational and leisure functions (in 2008 the National Parks Network's 347,030 ha received over 10.2 million visitors and in 2009 this amount was 9.9 million visitor).

At present, Spain has 40 Biosphere Reserves, one of which is shared with Morocco and another with Portugal and give Spain the world's third-highest number of such reserves after the United States and the Russian Federation. By 2009, Spain had 68 Ramsar sites covering an area of 284 921 64. 

A major problem in natural areas is forest fires. Some years, the impact can be particularly damaging, as was the case in 1994 when 437 635 ha caught fire. Over the period 1990–2009, there was an average of 18,247 forest fires per year. Fortunately, the average area affected per forest fire is decreasing, demonstrating that preventive and fire-fighting measures are becoming increasingly effective. Over the period 1995–2009, 93 human lives were lost to forest fires.

Forest fires

 If terrestrial mammals are excluded from the data, only 10–35 % of Spain's endangered taxa are listed in the country's Catalogue of Endangered Species. In the case of vascular flora, the percentage is particularly low (10 %). The figures for fish and amphibians (25 % and 18 %, respectively) are also low given the conservation needs of these groups, which contain a large number of endemisms. Birds and reptiles account for approximately one third of the taxa catalogued as endangered, while for mammals the percentage of catalogued endangered species stands at a more satisfactory 76 %. These figures reveal that a greater proportion of taxonomic groups containing emblematic species (mammals and birds) has been catalogued than of other less visible ones, such as vascular plants and amphibians.

Trends in bird populations provide an indicator of the state of ecosystems and biodiversity, as birds are highly sensitive to changes in their habitats. These data therefore provide a means of analysing the state of conservation of the habitats in which they live. In the last decade there has been an increase in populations related to forest ecosystem, stability in urban bird populations, in those associated with aquatic and the migratory species, and a decline in the populations related to agricultural resources. Trends observed over the last decade are summarised in the graph.

Trends in bird population

The publication ’Environmental Profile of Spain, 2009‘ provides more information on natural areas, forest ecosystems (area and damage) species (threatened, invasive and the population trends of common birds) and environmental monitoring. There are more information about other topics of interest such as drought, erosion processes and desertification.




The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

The increase in population and economic growth have led to an increase in exploitation of natural resources (soil, water, energy, etc.) and pressures on the environment.

Population growth has also driven up demand for housing and, consequently, increased the amount of built-up and artificial areas at the expense of agricultural and natural areas. Spain's population has risen rapidly in recent years to reach a total of 46,745,807 inhabitants in 2009. Over the period 2000-2009, the population increased by 15.4 %.

The current global economic and financial crisis has had a major impact on the Spanish economy, which has become highly dependent on consumption, international tourism and the construction industry.

Transport and transport infrastructure: This sector has developed enormously in Spain and in 2007 accounted for 5 % of Gross Value Added and employed 700,000 people.

Transport modal split 2008

The pressure exerted by terrestrial transport (road and rail) on biodiversity is not restricted solely to pollutant emissions, since transport infrastructure also fragments territories and habitats. Noise is another transport-derived pressure and can reach high and very high levels in and around urban agglomerations and airports. Strategic Noise Maps show that a total of 8,130,800 people living in large urban conurbations were affected by noise from road and rail traffic, airports and industrial facilities. Outside these conurbations, the number of people affected by major roads stood at 2,116,100, while those affected by major railways totalled 81,800 and the number affected by major airports reached 143,700.

Energy: Energy production and consumption exert severe pressures on the environment and human health. Energy consumption in Spain rose in recent decades with economic development and the increase of transport, industry, services and the domestic sector. However, the pace of increase has slowed since 2008. In fact, the final energy consumption in Spain In 2009 (including non-energy consumptions) was 97,776 ktoe, 7.4% lower than in 2008.

Tourism: Since 1995, Spain has received growing numbers of foreign tourists (the total rose from 34.9 million in 1995 to 52.2 million in 2009). In 2009, the country received 1.12 foreign tourists per resident. The pressure exerted by tourism on biodiversity derives from changes in land use, soil compaction and increased construction in coastal areas, greater atmospheric pollution by road and air traffic and increased consumption of resources.

Agriculture, livestock farming, forestry and fishing: Spain has EU's second-largest utilised agricultural area and the fourth-largest number of farms (2007). Water consumption and use of fertilisers and pesticides are causes of pressure on the environment. In 2008, irrigated land accounts for 13.7 % of utilised agricultural area and the amount of organic farmland stood at 1,317,750 ha in 2008. The average fertiliser consumption was 92.4 kg/ha and pesticide product consumption reached 2.81 kg/ha of active ingredient.

According to the latest available data, Spain's forest area, comprising woodland and other forest formations, covers over 27 million ha. Estimates indicate that the country's wooded area has increased by 6.5 % since 1995.

Spain's extensive and varied coastline has given rise to a long-standing fishing tradition. In recent years, average total catches have stood at around 1 million tonnes. At the same time, marine and inland aquaculture (both fish and molluscs) have increased, particularly in the last decade. Rationalisation of Spain's fishing fleet to meet European regulations has reduced it to 11,394 vessels (2008). European waters, among them the Spanish coastal waters, are habitually overfished and some species may already be below their safe biological limits.

Primary industry has unquestionable repercussions on the environment and, therefore, on biodiversity. However, these age-old activities are not in themselves the main or only reason for biodiversity loss. After all, traditional practices had established a symbiotic relationship between the environment and human activity that was mutually beneficial for centuries. The greatest danger comes from intensive resource exploitation in agriculture, livestock farming, forestry and fishing and from use of technologies that have an aggressive impact on fragile ecosystems.



The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Biodiversity in 2020 will depend on the balance achieved between:

  • The main trends in development of Spain's economy and production sectors
  • The success of the environmental policies applied
  • The degree of involvement by public and private institutions
  • The level of education and awareness among the general population


The world economic short-to-medium-term outlook is difficult to predict, which makes it equally hard to forecast future developments. Nevertheless, according to the latest data, the Spanish economy's growth has slowed. This has principally affected the construction industry and the situation will foreseeable continue for some time. This downturn may be considered positive in terms of halting biodiversity loss, as it will result in, for example, fewer GHG and other pollutant emissions, less urban development and less pressure on Spain's coast.

Remarkable efforts are being made to achieve sustainable use of water resources. Policies are being implemented to prevent air pollution and GHG emissions and expansion and development of the Natura 2000 network continues apace.

The balance between pressures, responses and society's awareness could well play a positive role in halting biodiversity loss by 2020.


Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Some of the key measures and initiatives implemented in Spain to ensure sustainable management of the natural environment and prevent biodiversity loss are listed below.

  •  National strategies to conserve endangered species (1999–2008): The Spanish National Catalogue of Endangered Species is one of the catalogues that will be integrated into the National Inventory of Natural Heritage and Biodiversity under Law 42/2007, on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity.
  • Protection of wetlands – Ramsar Convention (1982): Spain ratified the Ramsar Convention in 1982. In 2004, it created the Spanish National Wetlands Inventory, which is based on information provided by the country's regional governments. The Ramsar Convention lists a total of 68 Spanish wetlands covering 284.921 ha.
  • Protection of coastal ecosystems: Spain has taken major steps towards achieving this objective and participates in the OSPAR Convention and the Barcelona Convention. At present, 9 of the 21 areas included in the list of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI) are on the Spanish coastline. To date, the main protected areas are the Atlantic Islands National Park (since 2002), La Cabrera Archipelago National Park (1991) and the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Nature Park (1987), all of which comprise marine and terrestrial areas. In addition, the Natural Heritage and Biodiversity Law establishes a specific Marine Protected Area (MPA) category, the first of which is the ‘El Cachucho’ area located 60 km off the Asturian coast in the Bay of Biscay.
  • Recent legislative initiatives (2007) – Natural Heritage and Biodiversity Law and Sustainable Rural Development Law: Looking towards the future, two pieces of national legislation will have a direct short-to-medium-term effect on all of Spain's biodiversity conservation plans and programmes. These are the Natural Heritage and Biodiversity Law and the Sustainable Rural Development Law, implementation of which takes every aspect of the natural environment into consideration.


  1. Law 42/2007, of 13 December 2008, on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity, establishes the basic legal framework for conservation, sustainable use, improvement and restoration of natural heritage and biodiversity and is based on the duty to conserve and the right to enjoy an environment appropriate for personal development.
  2. Law 45/2007, of 13 December 2007, on Sustainable Development of the Rural Environment, regulates and establishes basic measures to favour rural economic, social and environmental development to improve quality of life for the inhabitants of the rural environment whilst promoting protection and appropriate use of ecosystems and natural resources.




The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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